Dirt Woman passes

Dirt Woman (Donnie Corker)

The PR folks of my home institution are happy when the university’s name comes up in the national news. However, the story recently on NPR, in which Virginia Commonwealth University was mentioned, may not be the publicity they seek. The story was about the death of a local character who hung out near the university. This was Donnie Corker, better known as Dirt Woman, a well-known transvestite who engaged in a wide variety of public activities, from selling flowers on Grace Street to crashing the Inaugural of Governor Doug Wilder. He was notably involved in a variety of charity endeavors. He was out as a transvestite at a time when that was not an easy thing to do, and his popularity encouraged others to come out. In the NPR story, transgender Ellen Shaver talked about how important Dirt Woman had been for her:

Here it was. He was already 200-and-something pounds, and he was out there dressing the part and getting away with it. As far as I could go was probably the perimeters of my house. And Donnie was down there parading up and down Grace Street acting like, who cares?

I remember Dirt Woman well, as he appeared in the 1970’s and 1980’s, sitting on a stool selling flowers, an unusual figure, but harmless, friendly, and always upbeat. His haunt, Grace Street, has changed a lot since then, as the university has transformed a porno theater into a fine arts venue and bought out former sketchy bars, stripjoints, and nightclubs. Our original German conversation group, the Richmond Stammtisch (now meeting Thursday evenings at Mojos) started with a small group meeting at McClean’s at the corner of Grace and Shafer Sts. (where VCU GLOBE is now). In fact, in the very first Stammtisch in 1980, I met for the first (and only) time, the colleague in the Foreign Language Department whom I was hired to replace, Gerhard Kallienke. He had been sitting at a table nearby and overheard us speaking German and came over afterwards to introduce himself (and trash all his former colleagues). Soon afterwards, he moved to Oklahoma, where, according to The Oklohoman, he was murdered in the early 1990’s in a gruesome case which involved teenage girls having “taunted Kallienke by pouring coffee, sugar, flour and shaving cream on his body as he lay naked in a drunken stupor” and then dousing him and his room with gasoline before setting fire to the building. The girls allegedly had “traded sexual favors for money after he hired them to clean his house” and then forged and cashed his checks.

Now that’s a situation which I’m sure VCU was happy to have happened after Kallienke was far away from Richmond and no longer associated with the university. Dirt Woman may not have been an academic, or had a conventional lifestyle, but he was nonetheless someone who had an inspiring influence and not a person we should regret having had a close connection to the university.

Symbolic ethnicity or cultural appropriation?

The Ganley Sisters doing a brush dance

Last night I attended a Karneval Fest (German version of Mardi Gras celebration, also called Fasching), sponsored by one of the local German social clubs, the Deutscher Sport Club Richmond. It was an interesting experience, with good German food and drink, music, and dancing. As is the case in Germany, there were also quite a few humorous talks, all given in German, in fact, often at least in part, in Rheinland dialect, as the most famous celebrations happen in cities along the Rhine, especially in Cologne and Mainz. These talks are called Büttenreden, meaning talks delivered on a vat or barrel (in dialect a Bütt). Judging from the paucity of laughs at punch lines, I am pretty sure the majority of attendees did not understand the jokes. That didn’t seem to bother anyone – the use of German contributed to the atmosphere, in the same way that the costumes, decorations, and the music did. Most of the folks there were enjoying playing at being German for the evening, just as most of them probably had done at the Richmond Oktoberfest.

I had another experience of what is sometimes called symbolic ethnicity today at a concert given by the Irish-American group, Cherish the Ladies. As this was held at noon, an Irish breakfast was served, with bangers and soda bread (however, no black or white pudding). The group consists of women from the US, Ireland and Scotland, but the featured ethnicity was definitely Irish, the source of almost all the songs (often written by members of the group inspired by visits to Ireland) and the jokes (many at the expense of the Scots). Just as we will next month on St. Patrick’s Day, we were all honorary Irish for the occasion.

In the US, assuming for fun and celebration a different ethnicity can be a tricky proposition. No one is likely to complain if a non-German wears Lederhose and a Bavarian hat to an Oktoberfest celebration. But donning a Native American costume for Halloween is considered inappropriate, an example of “cultural appropriation”. This month Is Black History month in the US, but it’s not likely any White Americans will honor African-Americans by wearing blackface. It may come down to the context in which the ethnic borrowing takes place, and the kind of portrayal used. Representing German ethnicity by wearing an SS uniform would be problematic, as would enacting an Irish identity by dressing as a starving potato farmer. It’s also the case that historically disadvantaged and mistreated groups, like American Indians and African-Americans deserve to by treated with dignity and respect by the mainstream culture, which oppressed them. There have been too many distorted and negative portrayals of those groups in the US media and culture for it too be ok to perpetuate the stereotypes.

One of the interesting aspects of both the German and the Irish events this week-end was the incorporation of women’s domestic work in a humorous or musical way. One of the talks at the Karneval Fest was given by a self-professed “Putzfrau” (cleaning lady), who brought along her mop and bucket. Two Irish sisters, preceding Cherish the Ladies (the Ganleys), did a “brush dance”, using ordinary brooms as props around which and with which they danced. Perhaps such evocations of an underprivileged class (women in domestic roles) is permissible in this instance because of the fact that both Irish-Americans and German-Americans have become part of the cultural mainstream. We White Americans can laugh at our own, confident, at least for now, in the maintenance of the power structure that provides white privilege, even for the least prestigious among us.

Coddled millennials?

whatAs universities in the US have started up a new academic year, there continues to be a good deal of discussion about the degree to which college students need to be protected from speech and actions which may offend. A recent article in the NY Times, “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults,” outlines the efforts at a number of US universities to provide orientation to new students, with concepts such as “microaggressions,” comments which unintentionally express prejudicial views or stereotype others. Examples given from the article, taken from an orientation at Clark University, include: “Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say ‘you guys.’ It could be interpreted as leaving out women.” The orientation at Clark mentions as well “environmental microaggressions” with the example given: all pictures of professors in the Chemistry Department lecture hall are of white men, causing non-whites and women to feel marginalized. The article continues:

A nonverbal microaggression could be when a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Latino person approaches. Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”

Also discussed in the article are other terms frequently heard in this context, namely “safe spaces”, where marginalized students can come together on campus, and “trigger warnings”, advance notice given to students of a topic about to be raised in a class which might upset some students. The orientations follow a series of incidents of racist speech and behavior at campuses last year, including the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin.

The Dean of Students at the University of Chicago provided a quite different perspective from Clark and other universities striving to limit students’ exposure to potentially harmful speech. In a letter to incoming students, he wrote: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” This is a view which has been aired by others as well, particularly alumni and conservative commentators, some of whom are cited in the article. They view the idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings as coddling students, ill-preparing them for the real world, and cutting off free speech on campus.

A compelling counter-argument has been supplied by a Black graduate of the University of Chicago, writing on Vox, “I’m a black U Chicago graduate. Safe spaces got me through college,” in which he describes how important the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs was throughout his college career, providing a respite from the frequent discrimination he encountered. He wrote that he used this safe space “not to ‘hide from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own,’ but to heal from relentless hate and ignorance, to hear and be heard. My ideas were always challenged, but never my humanity. I mattered.” There is an interesting interview with him on NPR’s On the Media. Recently 150 U of Chicago professors signed an open letter in opposition to the welcoming letter from the Dean of Students.

We are not we

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 8.47.22 PMIn the recently released “White Privilege II”, white rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis address uncomfortable questions of cultural appropriation and the role of white Americans in support of the protests over Blacks being shot by police. The song starts out this way, with Macklemore referencing the the 2014 Black Lives Matter march in Ferguson, Mo., that he participated in:

Pulled into the parking lot, parked it
Zipped up my parka, joined the procession of marchers
In my head like, “Is this awkward?
Should I even be here marching?”
Thinking if they can’t, how can I breathe?
Thinking that they chant, what do I sing?
I want to take a stance cause we are not free
And then I thought about it, we are not “we”

Can the “we”, i.e. those marching, include someone (white) who has not had the same experiences as those (blacks) marching? Should he be a participant or just an observer:

“Am I on the outside looking in,
Or am I on the inside looking out?
Is it my place to give my two cents
Or should I stand on the side and shut my mouth?
‘No justice no peace’
Oh yeah, I’m saying that.
They chanting out BLACK LIVES MATTER
But I don’t say it back.
Is it O.K. for me to say? I don’t know, so I watch and stand.”

The song is actually a sequel to the the 2005 release “White Privilege”. It may be that the title of the new song is in part an effort to remind us that Macklemore’s not a Johnny-come-lately to the issue. On the original “White Privilege,” he had already acknowledged the fact that he’s using an art form that has its origins in a wholly different context from his: “Hip-hop started off in a block that I’ve never been to/ To counter act a struggle that I’ve never even been through”. Macklemore is not of course the first white rapper; as he mentions in the song there have been a whole host of singers, going back at least to Elvis who have built careers off of songs or styles originating in African-American culture. Not all have acknowledged the debt or pointed to the potential unfairness of the process: “We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for Black Lives [Matter].”

Macklemore ends the song with Black poet and singer Jamila Woods singing the final lines, which some have interpreted as an attempt to legitimize his right to rap on this topic by including a supportive Black voice. Gene Demby, the lead blogger for NPR’s Code Switch team, who is African-American, wrote a piece this week, “Guess We Gotta Talk About Macklemore’s ‘White Privilege’ Song”, indicating by its title and its opening (“So. Macklemore. I suppose we have to talk about Macklemore.”) a distinct lack of enthusiasm. He does credit Macklemore with good intentions, and admits that engaging in dialog (at least among whites) is helpful:

It’s worth noting that Deray McKesson, one of the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement, has argued that this song does exactly what lots of people say they want more of in conversations about race — that is, it would be great if more white folks actively engaged in uncomfortable conversations about race with each other. McKesson’s note was ostensibly an endorsement, but it’s also an acknowledgement that this song is not really meant for people of color. That would seem to underscore Macklemore’s larger existential dilemma regarding his relationship to black audiences: He really seems to want to be talking to us, but he’s not saying anything we don’t already know.

At nine minutes long, the song may not prove to be a hit, but it does stir the pot.

Halloween correctness

James Ramsey, lower right, the University of Louisville president, and his wife, Jane, upper left, hosted a Halloween party in Louisville, Ky. The University of Louisville has apologized after the photo showing Ramsey among university staff members dressed in stereotypical Mexican costumes was posted online. Scott Utterback/The Courier-Journal, via Associated Press

James Ramsey, lower right, the University of Louisville president, and his wife, Jane, upper left, hosted a Halloween party in Louisville, Ky. The University has apologized for the photo showing Ramsey among university staff members dressed in stereotypical Mexican costumes. Scott Utterback/The Courier-Journal, via AP

There have been recently in the US media a rash of reports related to what is often called cultural appropriation, namely taking on superficial aspects of another culture (appearance, dress, speech) in a way that can be perceived as prejudicial and insensitive. Today, there was a story out of Yale University, which, as other US universities did for Halloween, issued guidelines for avoiding cultural insensitivity in choosing a Halloween costume – eliminating what used to be mainstays of Halloween costumes such as Native American princesses (Pocohontas) or a Chinese warrior princess (Mulan). At Yale, an email was sent out to all students outlining what kinds of costumes are inappropriate. One of the categories was “Socio-economic strata”, which would have eliminated my stand-by Halloween costume as a kid, a hobo, a term which, too, has become unacceptable. The email sent out to Yale students by the “Intercultural Affairs Committee” prompted a response by one faculty member, Erika Christakis, who commented in an email of her own:

This year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween. I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.

The idea, advocated here, for Yale students to decide issues of appropriateness of costumes for themselves, was met with a storm of protest from Yale students, with one encounter (with Christakis’ husband, also a faculty member) being captured on video. The Atlantic today has a long article about the controversy. One of the points made there is that the students’ strong reaction to Christakis’ email was likely not just caused by the email, but came from feelings of many minority students at Yale that racism was prevalent on campus. A NY Times article details some recent incidents.

The tension between free speech and cultural insensitivity is something that many US universities have struggled with, for example in creating “speech codes” which limit certain kinds of speech. It’s not just college campuses either. The NY times ran a piece recently on fashion asking “Does anyone own the cornrow?”, a hair style associated with black women, but one that has become popular with young white women as well. The case of Rachel Dolezal (the white woman who until recently claimed to be black) also has raised interesting questions of identity formation – is it offensive for someone to try to look black because she feels black and identifies more with African-Americans?

Sports, race, & identity

Serena and Venus at Wimbledon  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Serena and Venus at Wimbledon
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

One of the ways we create unique personal identities is through the free-time activities we choose. These days those activities are likely to involve lots of screen time. In response, parents may be looking for activities to get their children moving – and outside. One likely direction are sports, either individual or team. What sports children choose is likely influenced by their parents, by friends, and by what’s available nearby. One of the other factors is the current popularity of any given sport. Interest in soccer (football) always goes up when the World Cup rolls around. Of particular importance are major sports figures, particularly if they offer some personal connection. They can function as a “reference group”, a group we aspire to join. A story on NPR this week looked at the inspiration that Venus and Serena Williams have given young African-Americans to take up tennis and asked why it is that Tiger Woods has not had the same effect in golf. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that tennis, like golf, was seen as a sport for the leisure class, i.e. in the US, predominantly for whites. Of course, it takes more resources to play golf than it does tennis. But it is also likely just the image that golf projects, not a likely imagined future for most young African-Americans. There have been efforts to interest urban youth in golf, notably through the First Tee program, which has had success in some cities.

Of course, professional basketball remains the imagined future for a good number of talented young African-Americans. The NBA has over 70% Black players. As Michael Dyson pointed out in his book on “Reflecting Black”, basketball has become much more than a sport for many urban communities, “it also became a way of ritualizing racial achievement against social barriers to cultural performance.” (pp. 66-67). It used to be that baseball offered similar opportunities for Blacks – and it still does for Dominicans, who continue to flock to the US to play in the major leagues. But in last year’s World Series, there was not a single African-American on the winning team (the San Francisco Giants). There were also no Blacks on the team the Giants beat to get to the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals. Comedian and baseball fan Chris Rock commented: “How could you ever be in St. Louis and see no black people? And get this. Their crowds were more than 90 percent white — like the Ferguson police department!” In fact, he has a whole routine on the whiteness of baseball:

3 miles apart and worlds away

hallwayThe current story in the radio show This American Life illustrates through an individual experience the reality of the gap between rich and poor in the United States as played out in education. It tells the story of New York city high school students participating in an exchange in which they visited each other’s schools. Both schools were in the Bronx and just 3 miles apart, but as put in the story, it took the equivalent of a foreign exchange program to bring them together. One school, University Heights High School, is a public school and is 97% black and Hispanic. The other, Fieldston, is one of New York City’s elite private schools, 70% white with an annual tuition rate of $43,000. The story follows several students who participated in the exchange visits and in particular one girl, Melanie, from University Heights, who reacted to the visit to Fieldston with shock and dismay. She was a bright student who seemed sure to go on to college and be successful in whatever career she would take up. But after managing to track Melanie down 10 years after the exchange between the schools, Chana Joffe-Walt, the producer of the episode, discovered that she had in fact not followed that path. In conversations with Melanie, we learn of the dream she had to attend a prestigious university and her struggles to get by working in a grocery store and her profound shame over her situation. Melanie had been close to winning a scholarship to attend an elite college (Middlebury) but was not selected. A student who did win a scholarship through that same program is also followed in the episode. The young man, Jonathan, attended Wheaton College, but dropped out. Although he had a full scholarship, he had no money to buy his textbooks, and felt out of place among the other students. Their stories demonstrate in poignant ways how difficult is to cross socio-economic boundaries, even with the support both students received from teacher-mentors.

In interviewing Melanie, Joffe-Walt went back to that initial visit to Fieldston and her shock at seeing the radically different environment:

It was just like, OK, this is private. So everything kind of is a fucking lie that you see your whole life growing up on TV shows or movies. It’s like, OK, this is not free. This is not available for kids of color. This is something that only privileged or the elite can have. I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we’re only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald’s or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we’ll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.

Joffe-Walt comments:

So that’s what she found so upsetting. It seemed that the people around her must believe that this was the natural order of things. Melanie knew there was no innate difference between her and a kid born into wealth. She could see that this division we’re all so inured to was not a reflection of her inferior worth or ability, she just didn’t know what to do with the idea that she might be alone in seeing that.

Hair as politics

annie

Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie

Two recent stories on NPR highlight the importance of hair styles for personal identity, and point to the cultural and political messages hair can send. There is a trailer out for the new movie version of the muscial Annie, which features African-Americans in the lead roles. That includes Annie, the orphan with the full head of red, curly hair. In the movie, Quvenzhané Wallis plays Annie and, as can be seen in the trailer, her hair is not styled at all, not really an Afro, as is the traditional image of Annie. Terri Francis from Indiana University commented in the story:

“The original Annie had a red Afro,” she points out. So when you’ve got a black actress playing Annie, why not keep her ‘fro? “The ‘fro is too political or too threatening or too black,” Francis speculates. “Or something?”

Of interest as well is the fact that Daddy Warbucks (renamed Will Stacks in the film), traditionally bald, wears a hairpiece:

Black baldness, says Francis, means something different than white baldness.
“The baldness is not about losing hair,” she explains. “The baldness is badness.” (And just to be clear, that’s baadnessss with “two A’s, four S’s,” Francis says.) Giving Daddy Warbucks a hairpiece tames him a little bit, she says. It makes him less virile.


If black baldness may send a signal, that is also the case with dreadlocks. That may be particularly true if the African-American happens to live in a predominantly white neighborhood. That’s the case with Mark Quarles, who wears his hair in dreadlocks and lives in an affluent area on the Monterey Peninsula in California, along with his German-born wife and 2 children. In a conversation with NPR’s Michele Norris, Quarles discusses how his appearance influences how his neighbors view him, which is with suspicion. He mentions that before he grew his dreadlocks, he had established stable employment and financial security. That plays a role in the advice he says he would give his son, if he were to say he wanted to have the same hairstyle as his dad:

Well, if he came home and said he wanted to grow dreadlocks, I would share with him – well, son, I hope you’re prepared and ready for what’s going to come along with that because it’s going to take a great deal of patience, and you’re going to have to be ready for what people will say and what they will think about you… and I would tell him, son, I’ve completed my education. I have a very good career. We have a nice home, and I did all of these things before I decided to grow my dreadlocks. And, again, the world will make assumptions about you based on your appearance. So right now, I just need you to be a clean-cut, well-dressed kid without your pants hanging off of your butt.

Hair plays a major role as well in a new Venezuelan movie, Pelo Malo, meaning “bad hair” in Spanish. The main character is a 9-year old living in a poor neighborhood in Caracas. As is the case with many Venezuelans, the boy has European, indigenous and African ancestry, which gives him thick, curled hair. In advance of having his picture taken at school, he becomes obsessed with straightening his hair, trying everything from blow-drying to applying mayonnaise. The signal that sends to his mother is that he must be gay.

It’s not just Venezuelans who think about straightening their hair; it’s the case with many women of African descent. Chimamanda Adichie has written about the importance of hair for Nigerian women (in Americanah), and for her personally. In a video clip she expands on the cultural and political significance of black hair:


As a child of the 1960’s, my experience of hair as politics goes back to the signal sent by hippies letting their hair grow long, as beatniks did before them, as a way to signal visually that I am embracing a different culture from the (clean-cut) mainstream. This was famously expressed in “Almost cut my hair” by David Crosby, a celebration of letting your “freak flag fly”.

I, too, am Harvard

harvard2An article over the week-end in the NY Times discussed racial “microaggressions”, an increasingly used term on U.S. college campuses to describe “the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture”.  The Times cites examples: “A tone-deaf inquiry into an Asian-American’s ethnic origin. Cringe-inducing praise for how articulate a black student is. An unwanted conversation about a Latino’s ability to speak English without an accent.” These are clearly not examples of full-blown racism, but are indicators of a lack of awareness and sensitivity.  At a number of universities currently there are discussions of microagressions, through Facebook pages, photo projects, or blogs. There is debate in these forums as to whether the examples given are legitimate reasons to feel slighted or whether, as the Times states, they represent “a new form of divisive hypersensitivity, in which casual remarks are blown out of proportion.” The term’s prominence comes in part from the popularity of a blog begun by two Columbia University studens, the Microagressions Project.

At Harvard, a photo project called, “I, too, am Harvard” explores microaggressions experienced by black students at the elite university.  Many cite references to the appearance, often centered around hair, or casual statements about it being nice to be black when applying to Harvard.  That latter comment reflects one likely origin of such comments, the perceived experience of minority students receiving preferential treatment through affirmative action programs.  The photo project at Harvard has since morphed into a play.

An interesting take on such slights comes from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In a recent interview on NPR, Adichie recounts the bafflement she felt when a black fellow student at Princeton took offense at a classmate talking about watermelon.  As an African, she has had to learn the cultural dimensions of being black in the U.S.  Interestingly, she has a lot to say in the interview about hair and the importance of how Nigerian women chose their hair styles, a topic that also comes up in her wonderful novel, Americanah.

Not in Putin’s plans: Crimean Tatars

tatar

Crimean Tatars in traditional dress

Part of the tense, complicated crisis currently in Crimea is the role of an ethnic group indigenous to the Black Sea peninsula, the Crimean Tatars.  Their history has made them side much more with Ukraine than with Russia in the current stand-off.  They were forcibly removed by Stalin from Crimea, which they consider their ancestral homeland, and in the waning days of the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, gradually began returning to Crimea.  Today they represent some 12% of the population of Crimea. Having suffered persecution under both Czarist and communist Russia, the Crimean Tatars are understandably nervous about Crimea coming back under Russian control. In fact, until the recent arrival of Russian military units in Crimea, the Tatars were among the few groups outside Western Ukraine actively proclaiming their allegiance to the new Ukrainian government. According to a recent article in the New Republic, the Crimean Tatars are not likely to go along with an increasing Russification of the peninsula and may  cause trouble for Putin’s possible plans to annex Crimea.

The Crimean Tatars differ from both Russians and Ukrainians in religion (Muslim) and language (Crimean Tatar).  Their language belongs to the Turkic language family and is one of the treasured cultural traditions the Tatars maintained in exile.  Today, however, living alongside other Crimeans speaking Russian and Ukrainian, there are fears that the language is endangered.  Should the language die out, so would a crucial element of the group’s cultural identity and cohesion.  In an interesting reflection of socio-political realities, the written language has gone through myriad transformations, from using Arabic script, to Turkic, to Cyrillian, to a Latin-based alphabet. 

Anti-Semitism non-verbally

Quenelle-Anne-FrankAn op-ed piece in the NY Times today discusses the gesture invented by French comic Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, popularly known simply as Dieudonné. It’s a strange gesture, holding out the arm stiff, as in the Nazi salute, but pointing it down, and folding the other arm across the chest.  Dieudonné has named it the quenelle, the French name of a large meat dumpling. It’s widely recognized as an anti-Semitic gesture, with its obvious echo of Nazism, although according to Dieudonné it’s just meant to be anti-system.  That however stands in the face of Dieudonné’s public anti-Jewish statements and positions in the past.  Dieudonné’s fans have recognized the true meaning of the gesture, using it in front of synagogues, the Berlin holocaust memorial, or as pictured here in front of an Anne Frank poster. Due to it being illegal in France to “incite racial hatred”, Dieudonné’s shows have been banned in France, creating quite an uproar.

The author of the op-ed, Sylvain Cypel, sees the quenelle as pointing to something troubling in French society: “The Dieudonné affair is symptomatic of an insidious slide toward intolerance, but anti-Semitism is the least of it; racism and xenophobia manifest themselves more often as anti-Arab, anti-Muslim or anti-black.” She cites such examples as the black minister of justice, Christiane Taubira, being called a “monkey” or swastikas being spray-painted on the headstones of French Muslim soldiers.  Not all intolerance is so blatant or ugly, the coded racism of the Front National now has a friendly face with Maxime Le Pen but the essential positions remain the same.  One shouldn’t just point the finger at France.  Unfortunately, the intolerance to Others (especially the Others having darker skin and a different religion) is wide-spread in Europe these days with far right, nationalistic political parties having significant popular support in a number of European countries. Those parties tend to also be opposed to the European Union.  Let’s hope that, as has historically been the case, that this kind of far-right populism is tied to the bad economy and that once the European economy recovers, the political situation will change.

Homophobia & Colonialism

uganda-anti-gayAmong the legacies of colonialism are habits and attitudes brought by the colonizing powers and which persist beyond the colonial period. That may be in some cases a taste for particular foods or styles of preparation – for example, the Portuguese treats I remember enjoying in Macau (at a casino food court, no less). The French influence on Vietnamese cuisine is another example (although pho may or may not be related to pot-au-feu). Even more evident is of course language, with India, Pakistan, the Philippines or Hong Kong taking advantage of the historical role of English to foster wide use of that language in business and education. But the few instances of positive colonial legacies pale in comparison to the pernicious cultural, economic, and political legacies of the colonial powers.  That includes suppression of native languages along with countless other acts of cultural imperialism.

What we are witnessing now in Uganda is just such a sad legacy. As discussed in a piece in the Think Africa Press, one of the sources of homophobic attitudes in that and other African countries is a holdover from imported and imposed Victorian concepts of sexuality.  There are of course other factors involved as well, one being the anti-Western backlash against what can be seen as neo-colonial pressure for Ugandans not to pass anti-gay legislation.  Another being the possible influence of American evangelicals. Uganda is by no means alone, According to the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), there are at least 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal. Many have colonial histories as well but by no means all, and not all former colonies have Victorian attitudes to blame.  Russia’s anti-gay legislation and its wide-spread popular support seem sadly to be home-grown.

Uganda’s President indicated recently that he will not sign the anti-gay bill passed by the legislature.  His explanation – homosexuals are “abnormal” and “sick” and need to be rehabilitated. His views join a long list of world leaders making unfortunate remarks about gays in their countries, from Putin to former Iranian President Ahmadinejad who famously stated that there were no gays in Iran.

Lessons in Kindness and Forgiving

Nelson Mandel's symbolic action of reconciliation through sport

Nelson Mandel’s symbolic action of reconciliation through sport

Just in time for the Christmas season, a couple of stories in the news point to instances of personal conduct unusual in our day, offering a refreshing antidote to the culture of self-promotion and crudeness discussed in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal essay, “America the Vulgar“.

The incredible life of Nelson Mandela is a personification of the power of forgiveness, in his case resulting in the prevention of mass violence and freeing an oppressed people, ultimately creating a democratic state.  It wasn’t a small case of forgiveness.  The 27 years in prison robbed him of his prime and robbed him of his family. His son died tragically when he was in prison and he was not permitted to attend his funeral. He was allowed one letter every six months. He was often put in solitary confinement. Many Black South Africans wanted retribution against their long-time oppressors. Mandela forgave and initiated a process of reconciliation.

Seven years ago, Charles Carl Roberts entered an Amish elementary school, tied up 10 little girls, then opened fire, killing five in cold blood and injuring the others, then shot himself. The Amish community responded by offering immediate forgiveness, later attended the killer’s funeral, and befriended his family.  Now the killer’s mother spends time every week with a now 13-year victim of the shooting who as a result of the shooting is confined to a wheelchair and is fed through a tube.

Today in the news, one year after the Sandy Hook shooting, one of the parents of a slain child was asked what outsiders who wanted to help could do; her answer – perform “an act of kindness” in your community.

Blonde angel

angelThat is how the Greek press described the 5-year blonde, green-eyed girl found in a raid on a Roma camp.  There was immediate suspicion that she had been abducted by the family with whom she was living and she is in the custody of the Greek authorities.  Meanwhile DNA testing has confirmed that she is the daughter of a Bulgarian couple.  It’s not yet clear how she came to live with the Greek Roma family.  The Bulgarian family has 9 other children and the poor living conditions of the family has resulted in the majority of children being taken from the family home and placed with relatives, foster families, or local authorities.  In Ireland this month two blonde, blue-eyed children were taken from their Roma parents, then later returned when DNA confirmed they were in fact the parents.  As a recent article in the NY Times points out, Roma are now the ones fearing that their children will be taken away.  The active scrutiny by officials and the intense interest of the public in such cases is of course based on age-old stories of Gypsy child-snatching.  It’s not likely that any suspicions would be aroused should blonde children be seen with Greeks or parents of other nationalities who happen to be dark-skinned.

France has also been the scene of controversy involving Roma families and government officials.  A 15-year Roma girl was taken into custody while on a school field trip and then deported to Kosovo together with her family. This follows controversial statements from the French interior minister expressing doubt that Roma had the ability – or the desire – to integrate into French society.  These and other incidents, including mass deportations of Roma from France have raised discussion in Europe of the “Roma question”, a disturbing echo of the “Jewish question” posed in 20th-century Germany.

Trapped by language

Rachel Jeantel620x408In the past month there have been several big media stories in the U.S. dealing with language. One was the use of racist language (and behavior) by Paula Deen, the celebrity Southern cook, which has resulted in her losing most if not all of her business contracts. The other was the use of English by a witness in the Travon Martin case, 19-year old Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who had been on the phone with him just before he was shot by George Zimmerman. As detailed in a post on Language Log, her use of vernacular Black English was widely reported with a number of negative and offensive comments. There was a view expressed that Jeantel was just being lazy or contrary in not speaking standard American English and that she was using English incorrectly with random grammatical mistakes. As linguists pointed out (including John McWhorter on the Time web site in a segment on the NPR series “Here and Now“), she was not willfully distorting standard American English, she was speaking a version of English well known in linguistics and usually called African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. As John Rickford points out in his post, AAVE has rules and patterns that are fixed, giving the following examples from her testimony:

  • Stressed BIN, as in I was BIN paying attention, sir, meaning, “I’ve been paying attention for a long time, and am still paying attention.”
  • Preterit HAD, ax, and inverted did in embedded sentences, as in He had ax me did I go to the hospital “He asked me whether I had gone to the hospital.” [The use of the pluperfect form where other varieties use a simple past or preterit was first discussed by Stanford undergrad Christine Theberge.]
  • Absence of auxiliary IS: He ø trying to get home, sir.
  • Absence of possessive and third present s, as in “He a momma ø boy” and “He love ø his family.”

The defense attorney expressed at times difficulty in understanding Jeantel’s testimony, although it is unclear whether that was indeed the case, or whether this was being used as a strategy to discredit the witness. If the latter was the case, it seems to have worked, as one juror afterwards commented:

Juror B37 said Jeantel was not a good witness because the phrases used during her testimony were terms she had never heard before. The juror thought the witness, “felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills. I just felt sadness for her.” [from the cnn blog post]

Ironically, it turns out that Jeantel’s mother is a native speaker of Haitian Creole and that Jeantel speaks Creole and Spanish and thus in terms of speaking skills, has more language skills than most Americans.